If you haven’t heard, former PM John Howard has been bussed into ABC HQ to launch his, erm, career as a program presenter with Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia. Just three days after the first episode is broadcast another dyed in the wool conservative, Andrew Bolt, will crash Auntie’s airways, messing with the minds of those leftie beatniks who usually look after the programming schedule. When they get back from annual leave in Byron Bay, they’re gonna think the hash biccies still haven’t worn off.
Teaming up with Indigenous Labor MP Linda Burney (though the scope of this article is on Bolt and shock jocks more broadly), the controversial stuffed shirt embarks on a road trip to meet various people for and against whether our Constitution should recognise Aboriginal Australians as the First Australians.
No prizes for guessing who advocates what. One of several instances Bolt has used the term “political aborigine” appears in an op-ed imploring readers to “go beyond black and white”. This article was, somewhat ironically, found guilty of racial vilification. Though the show’s creators pretend otherwise, Recognition: Yes or No? is geared around two people who are never, ever going to charge their mind on this issue, talking to others who feel the same way.
When the pair visit Stan Grant at the gym (he sits down after a round with a speed bag) Bolt says that, gosh, he would hate for the Constitution itself to be racist by dividing us forever (“an attempt to address racism by a more explicit racism”). When they meet an Indigenous man who has renounced his Australian citizenship and claimed sovereignty, Bolt asks: we’re both humans, so why would you want to separate us? In other words, why are you being so racist?
Watching an hour of Andrew Bolt explaining why everybody else is wrong (with support from the likes of Cory Bernardi) reminded me of something I learnt during my university years. The pastime I am about to mention may not be the wildest way to spend your off-campus life, but then again this is coming from somebody who invested a disproportionate amount of time on the couch with munchies.
For a while I really got into listening to talkback radio. Not the youth-targeted programs hosted by trendy pancake turners who do stand-up comedy in their spare time, no. I tuned in to people exchange bile about issues of the day. Which is to say, I listened to Stan Zemanek and Steve Price. I felt like an ethnologist observing these strange, easily perturbed creatures in their natural habitat, figuring I was learning a thing or two about how they pursue their prey.
I came to believe they were masters at constructing a certain kind of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t style question. The sort where an answer in the affirmative would indicate you’re an idiot and an answer in the negative, that you’re a hypocrite. A question Bolt poses to Grant in Recognition: Yes or No? is a good example: “Should racism be in the constitution, as in, we now divide forever on the grounds of race?”.
You can’t answer yes and you can’t answer no. It’s a technique designed to beat opponents by presenting options that don’t fit the parameters of that person’s opinion (this is why politicians often say “I reject the premise of your question”). One time, listening to Price, I thought I had a good one. The conversation on-air was about harm minimisation and safe injecting rooms for heroin addicts. I believe such rooms are a good idea; Price thinks otherwise.
So a young-20s “Luke from Surrey Hills” calls up seeking only an answer to the following: “Would you prefer heroin addicts to take drugs in a controlled setting or would you prefer them to inject in public parks, around families and children?” See what I did there? Price was beaten, surely.
Except the diminutive acid-tongue was more skilled at argy-bargy than me; it was literally his day job. After some squawking back and forth, the shock jock delivered a comeback I never saw coming. He one-upped my zinger-question with a zinger question of his own: “What would you do, Luke, with the man arrested at Melbourne Airport last week carrying three kilograms of ecstasy? Shake his hand and say welcome?”
This is why someone like Bolt can never be beaten. When you take what is essentially a moral issue (in this case reconciliation) and frame the discussion as an intellectual parlour game, up can be down and left can be right, and doing the best thing morally becomes a secondary concern to winning the argument. Reasoning that sounds logical can then tell you that if you advocate something like racial reconciliation – if you want to take action to try and heal the deep wounds inflicted onto the First Australians – you, in fact, are the racist person, and how dare you?
Recognition: Yes or No? is far from a great documentary. It does present, however, a reasonably interesting if infuriating picture of a person who has their back so completely against the wall their entire public life has become an argument to justify its own existence. To say, again and again, in various different ways, Still Not Sorry. What a hell of a way to go about spending your time.
Argue with these people, sure. Come and fight the good fight, but do so understanding they are almost certainly better at this game than you. They’ve had much more experience and they’ve heard all the counter arguments before. Perhaps the most interesting thing you could query Andrew Bolt about has nothing to do with his (by now familiar) ideological perspectives. I’d like to hear somebody ask: “if you were me, and you were trying to win this argument, what would you say?” The response could be fascinating.